Home / Car News / I Can’t Stop Obsessing Over These Two Manual Ford SUVs: Which Is The Better Buy?

I Can’t Stop Obsessing Over These Two Manual Ford SUVs: Which Is The Better Buy?

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I can’t explain it, but there are some cars that just make me get a bit weird. Manual Ford Aerostars and Chevy Astros will do it, manual Saturn Vues will do it, manual Ford Fusions will even do it. There’s just something great about a manual version of a car that you wouldn’t expect to have a stick — especially if that manual makes the car extremely reliable over the automatic. That’s why I cant stop drooling over this 1993 Ford Explorer and 2008 Mazda Tribute (basically a Ford Escape). So let’s decide which of these is the better buy.

Typically “Shitbox Showdown” runs from Monday through Friday, and is penned by our talented contributor Mark Tucker. But I felt compelled to write a bonus Shitbox Showdown as a way to thank you for helping our site reach 1 Million pageviews this month, and also because I can’t stop staring at these two manual Ford SUVs and sharing them with Jason Torchinsky. Jason shares my appreciation for these two vehicles, but I can only send him these two links so many times before even he tires of agreeing with me that these are cool. (Actually, in truth, I don’t think he ever tires of it; but I worry that he might after the 1000th time I show him these links, so let me cut him a break and start bothering you). We’ll start with the Tribute.

2008 Mazda Tribute: $6,500

I know, I know. Some of you are thinking: “Hey, this is supposed to be Shitbox Showdown, and you’re showing us a $6,500 car?” And that’s fair; this thing ain’t cheap, and it’s really not a shitbox, per se. But it’s cool, though maybe in the same way that music aficionados like bad music and cheese connoisseurs enjoy dairy that smells like feet.

But whatever. So what if I’m in so deep that I’m now drooling over mundane crossovers? I’m not ashamed. Look at this thing! You can’t tell me that the second-gen Mazda Tribute’s styling hasn’t aged well. It’s upright, has tough fender flares, the face looks confident, and overall the design is just clean.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just the crisp exterior styling that has me so interested in this Tribute — it’s the interior. Not only is it equipped with a stickshift and clutch pedal, but it’s absolutely beautiful for a cheap 14 year-old crossover cabin. Check it out:

Am I wrong on this? Why do I find this 14 year-old Ford Escape cabin to look absolutely lovely. The tan and black is just so perfectly blended, the four-spoke steering wheel looks great, and the liberal use of tan on pretty much all door trim and on the headliner — it just makes the interior feel airy and pleasant.

But it’s not just the elegant interior and exterior styling that has me feeling some type of way about this Tribute, it’s the hardware underneath it all. The engine is Mazda’s 2.3-liter “MZR” engine, called the Duratec 23 in Ford applications. It is a legitimately good engine that tends to last forever, and it’s hooked to a Ford G5M-R five-speed manual which should last well beyond 200,000 miles if taken good care of (though its internal slave cylinder has me concerned, as to fix it would require one to remove the transmission; external slave cylinder designs don’t have that problem).

I guess what makes this car so appealing is that it’s a modern car with decent crash test scores, it scores 28 MPG highway, its interior looks fantastic, the exterior looks like a nice blend of elegancy and toughness, and with only 95,000 miles on the clock, I bet that Mazda MZR motor and G5M-R transmission will last until the end of time.

This seems like a stout, modern, comfortable, somewhat efficient little manual transmission machine that’s in incredible shape.

1993 Ford Explorer: $3,800


The other manual FoMoCo SUV I’ve been drooling for is a 188,000 mile 1993 first-generation Ford Explorer. It’s a body-on-frame, squared-off, old-school machine that really doesn’t get the love it deserves from car enthusiasts. Though I guess I understand why; the vehicle is a bit watered down. It’s not as purposeful as its Jeep Cherokee competitor; the geometry and the independent front suspension setup pretty much preclude the car from being a real off-road beast straight out of the dealership; it guzzles gas; it looks like many other Fords of the era (and shares many mechanical attributes)’ and it never really became a cult classic despite being featured in films like Jurassic Park (where it wasn’t really the star). It’s just a 1990s-era Ford SUV.

But I dig it.

The squared-off styling just works, and overall, I think this body-on-frame, 4×4 machine would make a pretty good camping rig. The 4.0-liter V6 underhood is basically unkillable from what I’ve been told, and though the Mazda M5OD five-speed isn’t exactly known for being the most robust manual transmission, if used mostly on the street and not in hard-core off-road environments it should hold up just fine.

The dash is a bit boring, but the Explorer’s seats are just fantastic with those striped shades of gray.

The two-tone exterior paint is lovely, and between it, the fun seats, the car’s squared-off shape, the reliable V6 engine, the 4×4 capability, and the five-speed manual, there’s just a lot of ’90s Americana to love, here.

The question is: Does the lower-mileage, more expensive front-wheel drive 2008 Mazda Tribute offer even more to love? It’s newer, safer, has a nicer and brighter interior, has a similarly stout engine and drivetrain, can go farther on a gallon of gas, and is safer. But it’s also a two-wheel drive crossover that looks like an Escape. Hmm.

Let’s have a poll:



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73 Responses

  1. I had a 93 Eddie Bauer Explorer and it was fantastic. If it had been a manual I’d have probably kept it. With the Eddie Bauer seats it was probably the best road trip vehicle I’ve owned. It would do fine driving around in the mountains on two track roads that could get sketchy, but I never really pushed it off pavement. It would be a perfect camping rig.

  2. I vote for the Explorer. The angular, boxy styling of the first generation Explorer has held up well over the years. I might need an eye exam, but I can see (or at least hallucinate) vague similarities to the 70s/80s Range Rovers. I think the Explorer looks good now and will still look good in 15 years.

    The Mazda is almost certainly the better vehicle, but I see it as a generic, interchangeable transportation appliance. I don’t see the Mazda being interesting enough to warrant inclusion in a shitbox showdown in 2037, when it is the same age the Explorer is today.

    1. I owned a 98 Ranger that I acquired at about 120K miles. The heads had cracked, rendering the motor junk. I got a lower (30k) motor from an, ironically, manual trans explorer, and we drove it for another 80k or so. It did want new $10/ea spark plugs every 20-30k miles. This damn thing still won’t let me post in one shot.

      1. Wait, really? Maybe I’m just stuck in childhood, but I watched all of Tenacious D during the pandemic and good lord does it hold up better than most other comedies of the time. Like, I think “Strangers With Candy” is a much better and funnier show, but Christ it’s a hard one to revisit.

        Tenacious D succeeds probably because the broad humor of simulating jizz using what is obviously a large tube of lotion squirted from a man’s crotch is funny for everyone.

        Full disclosure: I own the official Tenacious D cum rag, and perhaps am not the most impartial judge here.

  3. Mazda all the way. I used to own a Hybrid Tribute 4×4 and when I sold it after five years, it looked and drove exactly like the first day. The hard plastics inside are so hard that you can literally scrape your knee when getting into the driver seat in shorts (talking from experience). And that is the way a car like this should be!

  4. I own an escape of that era, although mine has the 2.3’s slightly larger cousin, the 2.5. They are pretty solid rigs. Maybe a few annoying things here and there, but nothing major. Only problem with the manual equipped versions of that generation, is I believe they are front wheel drive only. I can tell that the one listed in this article at least is. Ford was nice enough to leave a big gaping hole where the differential would mount on the AWD models.

  5. A weekend article. Whoo!

    Mazda. Mazda. Mazda. It’s a proper daily driver. What’s the use case for the Explorer? Maybe moderate weight tow vehicle or something to take to your hunting cabin a few times a year.

  6. Never seen the interior of a Tribute before but you’re right DT, it has a nice sweet harmony to it. Whole package inside and out just works. Have to with the Tribute, having ridden in way to many Explorers of this vintage to ever has a desire for one.

    1. I loved those two-door Sports. They were always noticeable for how rare they were, and the whole package was like a truck version of a sport coupe (the rear seats were esp. coupe-like in their difficulty to access).

      For those old enough, it seemed like the successor to the Bronco II, which was a fun little guy.

      1. Indeed, just with a wider track for more stability (at the expense of some off-road ability, undoubtedly Ford saw how people actually used their Bronco II and designed the Sport accordingly).

  7. I went contrarian here and voted Explorer.

    More of an actual truck feel, those 4.0 V6s are indeed very durable and have a good amount of low-end grunt (esp. with no automatic of the era to sap it), parts are easy enough to source, and Explorers of that era seem positively svelte compared to anything from the 2000s on up.

  8. A heavily biased vote for the Explorer from me. Many learning to drive and other high school memories in a first gen, and had three second gens after it. Only major issues we ever had with them were the automatic transmissions, so this was an easy choice for me.

    If the Mazda was 4wd and manual (which I know, was never an option), I might have voted that way.

      1. Hey I see 2wd 4Runners all the time. I don’t get it.

        I’d actually accept a 2wd crossover before a 2wd BOF SUV. I mean, you’re putting up with absolutely terrible driving dynamics, fuel mileage and so on…for what? So you can get stuck on a muddy driveway that a FWD crossover would scamper up no problem?

      2. It allowed Ford to sell the same vehicle to people walking into the dealer who were going to ‘outdoorsy’ cosplay or came in asking for a wagon. “You really own a kayak? Well, this has AWD and big butch wheels and fenders.” or “Here’s our basic FWD wagon now. It’s a bit higher than you expected, but it’s all we got.”

        I seem to recall the platform for this generation was even built on something mundane like the Tempo. Same formula as Civic/CRV and Corolla/RAV4 of the day.

        1. Based on the Tempo? The Tempo had been out of production for like 6 or 7 years when the Escape entered the scene. It was based on a Mazda.

          Were there really a lot of people clamoring for wagons at Ford or Mazda dealers then? Or did they just want the look of an SUV without the need for extra traction?

          1. It was a totally new platform, right? One of Ford’s first of the era IIRC.

            I liked the first gen Escape, but in retrospect, what I really liked was the Bronco Sport but it hadn’t been invented yet.

  9. The Ford, it has an honesty of design intent that the other lacks, also it has a better glass/ metal ratio, this is a particular bugbear of mine. I will forgo quite alot of passive safety in order to be able to actively see out of a vehicle.
    The Mazda looks a bit like the Ford might if it were cake left out in the rain.

      1. The top pictures don’t always seem to show up for some reason on my Mac – sometimes if I refresh a few times they show up, sometimes not. It finally showed up here after going to the front page and coming back. It’s odd because all other pictures show up just fine, but on most every page, the top photo rarely will show for me.

  10. I voted Explorer before I realized they didn’t list a price. I’m like 99.99999% sure they’ll want something insane for it so if that’s true, I’ll take the Mazda.

    I’ve never driven an Escape so I don’t have anything to compare to but I drove a bunch of Tributes when I worked at a Mazda dealer and always thought they felt like they’d be a good, solid, reasonable daily driver. I never ran across a manual Tribute but I did see a manual CX-5 there that took me by surprise.

  11. I think the Tribute has aged very well. No slam on the Explorer but the Tribute is much better looking to my eyes. I once rented an Escape of the same vintage and enjoyed it a lot, though I found the front suspension too harsh. Finally occurred to me to check the air pressures. Both front tires had 45 lbs!

  12. The first thing that I noticed about the Tribute is the centre stack is just black plastic, no fake carbon fibre, fake brushed metal or glossy piano black. Nice.

    I have a friend who had a small fleet of this generation Escapes for his business. He even drove one himself. He took pretty good care of things and he claimed they were all unkillable and affordable to keep up with required maintenance. He did however, lose them all to copious rust. They just rotted out extremely fast. For this reason, I think it is the best choice for David. He will feel right at home in one.

  13. Lady at work had one of the Explorers with MT. Rode with her once. Every shift was at redline and everytime she hit the brakes I was hanging on the belts trying to stay out of the dash.

    Mazda it is.

  14. Having owned a ’91 Mazda Navajo for a couple of years, I am undeniably your best resource for a recommendation here (and yes, I am looking deep into the chasm of the Sar).

    What do you want it for? A pavement-only runabout that will spoil you with it’s fresh*, updated* interior ? Would you drive it once the salt comes out?

    (* by DT standards)

    Let’s face it. The Explorer is close to your style. With it’s apparent lack of rust, you’d still probably park it in winter. But while not a rock crawler, the Explorer can go farther off road than a FWD CUV. I’m too lazy to look up tow ratings, but I’m guessing the Ford’s would be at least twice the Tribute’s. Since you work at home, how much driving do you really do? at an almost $3K price difference, how long would it take you to break even?

  15. I’d buy the Mazda. My 2009 Escape wasn’t the nicest or most reliable vehicle I’ve ever owned, but it was practical and thrifty compared to a BOF vehicle. The 1st gen Explorer was a sloppily engineered and dangerous piece of shit. The contemporary Cherokee wasn’t great on pavement either, but at least it could kick ass off road.

  16. Tribute all day. They’re incredibly rare in 5 speed form. They’re paired exclusively to the Mazda 2.5L that can be turboed into oblivion (their 2.5L blocks are also matted to the Mazdaspeed 3/6 MZR heads). There is literally nothing wrong with the 2nd gen, other than some rusty rear quarter panels, all of the issues are with the (Ford) V6 and early 4 speed transmissions.

  17. Rather have the mazda. That generation of Tribute/Escape is very reliable in my opinion. yet that is the nicest Exploder (Explorer, sorry, I’m a mechanic and worked on the neglected ones ) I’ve seen in years!

  18. That Explorer doesn’t have Firestone tires, does it? 😛

    I’d take the Escape/Tribute because a manual SUV THAT new is definitely rare and fun and kinda cool and unique.

    The Escape/Tribute is the reason Mazda didn’t offer a 4-cylinder engine on the Mazda6 wagon in the US–fear that it would steal sales from the Escape/Tribute, so the 6 wagon was V6-only in the US 🙁

    The I4 comes from Mazda. The V6 comes from Ford

  19. I wouldn’t actually buy either, but I like the Mazda better.

    I know they worked together, but can anyone explain why the Mazda has a Ford transmission and the Ford has a Mazda transmission?

  20. the only in person experience with that Ford/Mazda were two of my coworkers, one had the Mazda, the other had the Ford, and they both hated them and had all kinds of problems with them both the entire time they had them.

    so even as clean as it looks, I could ever choose it here.

  21. The Mazda by far – much newer and nicer to ride in, in better shape, and probably quicker than the Explorer. However, I’d much rather take a similar era Mazda5 – pre-2011 had the same 2.3L MZR & 5-speed, while 2012 and later got the updated & beefier 2.5L MZR & 6-speed manual. Plus with the Mazda5 you get sliding doors, more interior volume, 6 seats and a lower CG. Plus, they’re cheaper than the Tribute listed above.

  22. Explorer all day.

    My sister bought a ’92 for $500 in 2002… I put a fan clutch and fuel pump in it and charged the A/C and never did anything else but oil changes for the next three years. It rode rough, it was noisy, it was borderline anemic in the power department, but it was roomy, reliable, and useful as hell.

    On the other hand, I worked on the Tribute/Escape for a living and came away with a healthy hatred of the things.

  23. I like the Mazda, but that Explorer is the better bet, with the 4WD and the lower price. And the main problem with that generation of Explorer was the transmission on the automatic, which makes this one seem pretty bulletproof.

  24. Man this one is tough. If it were my DD I would go Mazda. That lil guy is actually pretty handsome. I like the hood bulge and the bumpers/flares are painted (not turned all chalky grey if not painted).

    The explorer would be a good 2nd vehicle. Home Depot trips with a utility trailer. Take the dogs to the creek. Throw some AT tires on there and do some camping etc.

  25. Happy to see that others have already referenced Tenacious D so I don’t have to.

    Here’s a question: Why? What would either of these offer that your existing vehicles don’t? I mean, they’re both nice, but neither one is especially interesting other than having 3 pedals. And unless I’m mistaken, you already have a nice rare manual SUV in similar condition.

    I guess if you’re going to go for it, the Tribute is the better vehicle. It would be a good, respectable, reliable daily driver. But I bet driving it is slightly less interesting than doing laundry.

  26. OK, I’m seriously looking at that Explorer. Every car I’ve ever owned has been older than the one before and this would be the perfect next step between my 96 Cherokee and the Model A that I want to get in a few years.

  27. The Mazda is priced more reasonably for what it offers. If it’s nearly as solid as it looks, it’s a great daily driver. Truth is, very few SUVs actually need to be 4X4.

    If I wanted a chonky half-assed Jeep wannabe, I’d buy the Explorer. This one seems a little too old to be a daily driver, so not nearly as good a deal, but it’ll probably sell for near the asking price in the current market to a Ford Stan.

  28. As a matter of fact I owned each of these — sort of. Around 2000 I bought a ’96 Explorer Sport (the 2-door version of the Explorer not Sport Trac) with the 4.0-liter V6 and 5-speed manual. I traded it for a 2001 Escape base model with the 2.0-liter and 5-speed manual. Both had 4WD/AWD. The Explorer was genuinely fun to drive in good weather but scary on slippery conditions in the winter due to its short wheelbase and high center of gravity. Driving the Escape, on the other hand, was a chore. The 2.0-liter was buzzy, course and slow. Painfully slow. (I understand the later 2.3-liter solved some of that.) Being a base model it lacked a center arm rest and the short shift lever was a long reach down so there was nothing sporty about rowing through the gears.

  29. Exploder. Yes it guzzles gas like your uncle guzzles crap beer at family gatherings. But it looks good from 20 feet, has early 90’s charm in spades, and can be fixed with a hammer. Throw a Springsteen mix through the stereo and enjoy rolling to the ice cream stand on weekends.

  30. I volunteer as Tribute! (I can’t believe I haven’t seen this reference in the comments yet)

    The Explorer checks all the boxes for me. Honestly, I only have two for this gen Explorer/Ranger and those are 4.0 and manual. But the Tribute looks like something that you can daily right now and for many years in the future – to me it is clearly the better buy if it is going to see regular use.

  31. Explorer all day and twice on Sunday. So, Explorer twice then.

    I’d love a manual 4 door 4wd Explorer, first gen or early 2nd would be fine. I’ve driven them and they’re a lot better as a daily than an XJ. They ride nicer, interior is roomier and not as awkward to get in/out of, and I always considered them to drive nicer, in spite of being true BOF. The Grand Cherokee was clearly aimed at Explorer, while the much earlier design of the XJ showed when compared.

    I have been off road in both (moderate trails with deep ruts, etc, nothing extreme), advantage: Jeep… but not by a huge margin for that type of driving. Hard-core off-roaders will undoubtedly prefer the Jeep. And they can enjoy is myriad of electrical problems and multiple fluid leaks, seemingly from the factory as I recall.

    The Mazda Escape? I’d rather have a real SUV any day. I had a crossover (AWD/manual Element), not interested in another (especially a FWD only, even with 3 pedals).

  32. The Mazda will undoubtedly be the nicer one to drive, but the Explorer is the one that will probably last with the cockroaches. Clicking on the links, I noticed two key things. First, the Explorer is already sold, because a clean running driving vehicle of any sort that you could safely put kids in for $3800 is a screaming deal these days.

    Second, and more importantly, the Mazda is an Illinois car. That generation of Tribute/Escape loved to rust out under that body cladding. I’d be willing to bet that despite looking oh so clean, there isn’t much body structure left under that cladding. I realize that’s somehow a plus for your David, but for those of us who aren’t keen to drive a vehicle that will wad up like a beer can on a frat boy’s forehead in a wreck, I’ll pass.

  33. My pick is the Explorer. I think the gen 1’s will start going up in value.
    By the way, is the TTB in the front an independent suspension?
    Technically the two sides of the axle are independent from each other but I think it has more in common with a solid front axle than a Macpherson-strut.

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